From plodder to fighter
I knew after completing Ironman Austria in June that I’d need another challenge to satisfy my masochistic tendencies. I’d fancied the idea of an ultra marathon for a while and was keen to get some decent miles in my legs again. I’ve been a fan of Endurancelife events since signing up to a coastal 10km in Dorset in 2009 and I had since completed the Gower 10km, half marathon and marathon. Stepping up to the ultra seemed the obvious next step. I parted with my money in August but then swiftly chose to ignore the fact at some point, I would actually have to build up the long runs again. In fact I didn’t do anything over an hour until early October when I started to work with coach Rob Wilby again. The last three months had been spent without my heart rate monitor and a structured training plan and although I loved it, by the end of September I was itching to get back on it. So I had five weeks to do just that and get into some sort of decent shape for a 34 mile hilly ultra marathon.
I was concerned that my legs might not cope with the distance. On my longer training runs, they had started to feel sore at around 16 miles. My final long run had been a complete disaster too. I had decided to run home (15 miles) at the end of a busy week when I had been feeling under the weather. I struggled to mile 10, then my body and my stomach rebelled and I ended up shuffling and cramping my way home for the last 5 miles. It really wasn’t fun.
But a week on and I arrived in the Gower like a coiled spring. I couldn’t wait to spend the following day running in stunning surroundings. Just me, my trainers and my rucksack on the trails. Simple. My alarm went off at 0520 and I had my normal race day breakfast of a bowl of porridge with honey and a banana, a bagel with peanut butter and a cup of tea. I didn’t feel nervous until I climbed into a dark minibus, full of lean men who looked like they ran ultra marathons for a living. The few females on board were either still half asleep or too nervous to cast a smile in my direction.
Once we arrived at registration the nerves disappeared and I reminded myself all had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and I would get to the finish before dark.
When we started at 0820, most people charged off. I didn’t. I knew the course wasn’t flat and we had a long day ahead. We got to the first hill after a few miles and thankfully everyone ahead of me was walking up it, so I didn’t feel the pressure to keep on running. Instead, I walked quickly, took on some nutrition and even passed a couple of people.
Soon after the hill, a lone spectator told me I was doing well and I was third female. I knew she couldn’t be right, but I suddenly thought there couldn’t be that many women ahead of me. By the second check point at around 10 miles, I had passed a few women and the marshal confirmed I was 3rd female. So after 1 hour and 53 minutes, I knew for the first time ever that I was actually going to have to “race” and not plod my way around happily. This was a completely new situation to be in, but one I was willing to embrace.
The bad news was, about five minutes later, 4th place caught me. Even worse was we got talking and she was lovely. What would happen, I thought, if we stuck together until the end? Would we be able to cross the line together? I put the thought briefly out of my mind and enjoyed the company of the 47-year-old New Zealander for the next six miles. The time flew by and she told me this was her first endurance event in over twenty years. Not only that, but two decades ago she had been semi-pro. I knew then that I had a fight on my hands for 3rd place!
At the next check point, there was some confusion. A group of about five runners were coming towards us, including 1st and 2nd female who had taken a wrong turning and completed an extra mile. It was really unlucky for them and a real shame the course wasn’t clearly signposted. But it also meant the four of us were within seconds of each other. The race really was on!
But 1st and 2nd didn’t hang around for long and as they ran off, 4th stopped to grab a gel. As we crossed Oxwich beach, the lead group gained ground on me and the lovely 4th closed me down going up the hill on the other side. When we got to the next beach, the lead group were still in eye sight, but a good few minutes ahead of me. But then I noticed the group had split and heading onto the next long stretch of coastal path, I worked a little harder and I could see I was closing in on 2nd. I momentarily passed her at around 24 miles, but I didn’t stay ahead for long. By the time we reached the dreaded sign which pointed right for the marathon finish and left for the ultra, she was ahead of me again. Could I close the gap in the last 10km? I knew it was going to be tough. I was tired and a killer hill and a 2 mile stretch of bog still lay between us and the finish line.
Going up that steep hill, I really thought I’d lost any chance of getting into 2nd. And then a friendly guy called Gareth asked me if I was ok as he came past. I said yes, but I didn’t mean it. I was slowing rapidly and struggling. He told me I was 3rd female as he knew 2nd was the one ahead because he had been running with her earlier, before he went through a rough patch himself. I said I’d happily stay in 3rd but I needed to make sure 4th didn’t catch me. She was hot on my heels and who knew what sort of a finish, as a former semi-pro, she would have!
I knew I had to stick with this guy. I increased my pace walking up the hill and as it flattened out at the top, my running legs and energy returned. He told me we were closing in on 2nd. I told him if we were going to go for it, he would literally have to drag me to the finish line. I knew I was going to have to really dig deep in the last four miles.
Two minutes later and we were flying past 2nd and the guy she was running with. Then Gareth said it would hurt my quads, but we had to go as hard as we could down the steep hill to increase the gap. I didn’t look back, I just had to concentrate and believe I could do it. By the time we reached the bottom of the hill and headed towards the bog, Gareth said we had about 400 metres and a minute or two’s lead on 2nd.
And so to the bog. Imagine the opening scene of Macbeth, with the witches. Now add a load of tiredness, heavy legs, mud and uneven, sodden ground and you get the idea. After 32 miles it’s not exactly the nicest terrain. But we kept our heads down and pushed on. Eventually we reached the road and Gareth said we’ve got 5-10 minutes of running left. I was in so much pain, but I still didn’t know if I had a big enough gap, so I battled the voices, sped up and attempted as much of a sprint finish as I could muster.
It worked and unbelievably, I crossed the line in 2nd place in 6 hours 29 minutes, after 34.4 miles and 4,500ft ascent. It’s weird to even write this, but I was also 14th overall. I waited for 3rd to cross the line and gave her a big hug. She had helped turn me from a happy plodder into a fighter.
Two years ago, I completed the marathon (27 miles) in 6 hours 22 minutes. To run seven miles further in a similar time is hard for me to comprehend. What I can tell you is it was bloody painful, I’m walking like a cripple but I am so proud of my silver medal.